Right Livelihood 1998
*Sermon delivered at Unity Church of Clearlake, July 1998.*
When I was a student at California Baptist College where I spent my undergraduate years, I was invited to the wedding of a classmate. I didn't know her fiancé well at all except for a couple of coffee shop conversations we happened to fall into, but he seemed to be a nice enough guy. I knew that he worked with some other of my acquaintances from college, and a point was made of this during the wedding when the groom and all of the groomsmen donned dark sunglasses and their security passes from work, grinning like a string of Cheshire cats. The security badges were all from the factory for which they worked building missiles and other weapons for the military.
Their humor was not lost on me-I like to think I'm sillier than the next guy-but the four of them, upstanding young Christian men with spotless reputations, publicly admitting that they work where they do.... I was uncomfortably distracted by this incongruity, and I don't even remember the rest of the wedding.
Perhaps they had never given a second thought to the use to which their labor may someday be applied. Not only did it not seem to bother them, but it didn't seem to occur to anyone at the college as odd, either. I was used to playing the Lone Liberal at my school, but it forced me to think about what is and what is not appropriate work for a person of faith. When the bombs fell on Iraq, did they wonder if this murder was the work of their own hands? I wonder.
It reminds me of the wonderful irony in the Martin Scorsece film _The Last Temptation of Christ_ where Jesus is a carpenter under contract by the Romans to produce crosses for crucifixion.
As I reflected back on the wedding in the weeks following, I racked my brain for some reference in the Gospels to making an appropriate living. This bothers me a little, in that I can't think of any explicit word in Scripture on the subject.
It is different for our Buddhist brothers and sisteres. For them the primary practice of faith is guided by the Noble Eightfold path, which includes Right Understanding, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, and Right Livelihood. It is this last that I we are concerned with here.
According to Buddhist scripture, Right Livelihood forbids the disciple to earn a living that is contrary to the spirit of Right Speech and Right Action: The Buddhist scriptures say, "Monks, these five trades ought not to be followed by a lay follower. Which five? Trade in weapons, trade in living beings, trade in meat, trade in liquor, and trade in poison" (Anguttaranikaya 5, 177 III). Elsewhere, scripture specifies butchers, fowlers, trappers, hunters, fishers, robbers, executioners, and jailors (Majjhimanikaya 51 I).
Why is it that Christianity has nothing to say on this subject? Why is it that none of the above listed occupations are considered inconsistent with the Christian life in our culture?
The Gospels may be silent about occupation explicitly, but we can certainly infer some things from Jesus' actions. Two instances come to mind: the story of the dishonest tax-collector, Zaccheus, and the woman caught in adultery. In the former, Zaccheus was a man of diminutive stature who climbed a tree in order to see Jesus as he passed through the city. Jesus, to everyone's surprise, called Zaccheus down and informed him that he would join him for a meal. During the course of the meal, Jesus' presence worked a transformation within Zaccheus, a conversion. He admitted his wrongdoing in extracting more taxes from the people than they owed. Zaccheus was eager to make amends and to start a new sort of life. Jesus didn't insist that he give up tax collecting, just that he be fair.
In the other story, Jesus rescues a woman from an angry mob set on stoning her to death, the appropriate punishment for adultery under Moses' Law. Jesus didn't lecture her about morality or the Law. She knew those things, and she knew her occupation was forbidden. Jesus didn't coerce her into repentance, his mere presence was enough to transform her. "Go and sin no more." Jesus said, and no more. Tradition tells us that this woman turned out to be Mary Magdalene, the first to behold the risen Lord.
The Buddhists have similar stories. One story tells of a notorious murderer who terrorized the kingdom. The inevitable happened. When the murderer confronted the Buddha, intending no good, the very presence of the holy man shook him to his very core. He dropped his weapons and knelt before the Buddha declaring that he wanted to become a monk. The Buddha embraced him and ordained him. In each of these stories, authentic encounters with the Holy result in a personal transformation which includes our means of living. The implicit message is clear: encounter with the Holy redeems and transforms the whole of life.
The Gospels do have more to say about our occupations. When Jesus was called to task for picking grain to eat on the Sabbath, and for healing on the Sabbath, he made it clear that helping, healing, and providing for others is always more important than any explicit Law, even if that Law is from God's own hands (as in the Ten Commandments). In the story of Jesus' visit with his friends Mary and Martha, it is made clear that adoration-quality time with loved ones, with Nature or with the silent presence of the Divine-is of far greater import than having all the dishes clean, or having the closets in order.
For those who follow Christ the world over, this is the first week of the season of Advent. It is the beginning of the church's year, and a time for reflection and starting over. In this season we look forward to Christ's coming, and we "prepare the way of the Lord," in our own lives. It is called a "penitential" season, and we are called to look deep into our souls, to identify those things that might be keeping us from living as successful a spiritual life as God wishes us to enjoy.
This is not a sad time, by any means--don't get me wrong. It IS a time that gives us permission to look within, to sink down into that superessential darkness where the Holy is, and to reconnect those bits of our lives which have become fragmented and need to be healed. I invite you to grasp that opportunity today. To look honestly and carefully at the tapestry you have woven, and to see where it needs mending. To prepare yourself for the coming of the Holy, for the visitation of the Divine into our secular calendar, that turns the world on its ear.
I invite you to join me in a meditation. Please make yourselves comfortable where you are sitting, close your eyes if that helps you to focus, and try to find your center.
I am still disturbed when I recall my friends' wedding. Not so much that these are friends who are making painful choices in hard times, weighing the moral implications of their employment over the hunger of their families, etc., but because they are completely unconscious of the fact that there might be some incongruity between their work and their faith. Perhaps the same is true for us. The world is changing. We are becoming more aware. Our eyes are opening to issues of justice that would never even have occurred to our grandparents. But that is our world.
In your mind's eye, I invite you to picture this planet we call home. Picture it as a house where you live. Imagine yourself sweeping the porch of Australia, and replacing the light bulb in Algeria. In this house, everything you do is important. Every piece of furniture reflects you or someone you live with. It is a community where everything affects everything else. In your minds eye, go into the room of your life, your bedroom perhaps, and look around at what is out of place. What clothes are scattered on the floor that need washing? What books need straightening up? Look around your room and see what needs to be done, what needs arranging, what needs dusting, what needs mending, what needs a fresh coat of paint. Your life is where you live, and it is part of the world. As you straighten up your room, let the things you see speak to you about your life. And give yourself permission to tidy up. There is no guilt here, no judgement: All of our houses need dusting and sweeping now and again. Sometimes we just need reminding to do it. Does your work reflect your commitment to peace and justice? Do your relationships reflect the God who gives you life and joy?
It is Advent, the time to tidy up our rooms. A time to say,
"Christ is coming! We have to get the house ready for company!"